What to make of Dory Sief? Played by Alia Shawkat on the critical darling “Search Party,” Dory is an average NYC young woman who went from an inquisitive bystander in the first season to being accused of murder in the third, launching on HBO Max on June 25. Shawkat, who considers the role the best of her career, has done nuanced work in conveying the arc of a woman thrust into a fascinating nightmare.
In many ways, the best thing about “Search Party” is the ambiguity around how viewers are supposed to feel about Dory, especially as she spirals through Season 3. Shawkat called us from her place in the quarantine to talk about that ambiguity, the overall arc of this character, her fellow castmates, and where Dory may be going next.
What’s it like to play a character who has transformed this much over 30 half-hour episodes, which is not something you often get in episodic television, especially comedy?
That’s one of the things that I like the most about the show. Even just in one season, it’s very important to me to work with [creators] Charles [Rogers] and S-V [Bliss] on that. We’re like just really keeping track of it. Even though the show has gone so many places each season. Even within the first one, it was important to me as an actor and the way I work that because it is a comedy, my character has to in a way ground all of it. The tone we were still figuring out the first season and I was like, “Am I playing this too real? We’re doing like five different shows.” But that’s actually the strength of the show. It always felt real in the scenes, but we were like, “Hope this translates.” But I’m so thankful for it because it’s like my favorite job ever because I get to really transform in all of it. As the seasons went on, it became such a deeper discovery of who this person is in all of these extreme situations. Obviously, it’s been a big theme in television for a while now of having a protagonist who’s actually troubled—the Tony Soprano character who we relate to but is also bad. In the package of this young, hipster, privileged girl it has such an interesting tone to it in how it’s evolved, especially in Season 3 where we see such a darker side of her. It sounds maybe pretentious, but it’s been a real discovering of her like shadow work and the deeper side of her spiritual discovery, and I’m so into that.
Do you talk about whether or not we’re supposed to like Dory? Or is it meant to be ambiguous? How do you play that?
I think it’s a mix of both. I remember showing it to my mom and my mom mentioned that it was tricky because I had to keep her likable to a degree. But it’s almost that what’s likable starts to change. I can’t talk about Season 4, but it goes to a whole other place! Even in Season 3, that was the biggest challenge. What does it mean to be likable in this world of “Search Party?” If you met these people on the street or at a dinner party, you might really like Elliott more than Dory. You don’t see his whole life. On the show, you have this perspective where it’s like what is likable? So the really fun part of it is that Dory is in real survival mode. In the first season, this person is trying to catch up. In the second season, the fear of what happened is creeping over. And in season three she’s committed fully. She’s 100% in. This is what it’s going to take, and you have to hop on board or not. I realized it’s not about her being relatable anymore. It’s just about understanding her choices. And that’s what I think makes it interesting to watch. You’re like, “I don’t even know what she wants or needs anymore, but she seems to know.”
How far in advance do you know her arc? Season by season? Or was there ever a time when like 3/4 were mapped at the same time or 2/3, for example?
It’s season by season, but Season 4 they kind of hinted at. When we’re doing a season, they’ll often hint at the next one but it’s always kind of in the air whether we’ll be able to do it or not. Charles and S-V are so smart and really playful with their ideas, so they’ll get really excited by them. “Wouldn’t it be crazy if this happens?!?!” So, it’s kind of in there but I only worked character-wise from the beginning of the season to the end because nothing is ever like written.
How far do they know the story or are they working more season by season too?
I think it’s a mix for them too. They have in mind what the next season is because that’s how they work as writers. They have ideas and so they want to be somewhat prepared but I think they’re really smart, especially because it’s very stylized the way each season ends, about knowing where it lands. And we don’t shoot in order at all. So, when we get the drafts for the whole season, I’m making notes of the whole arc because we’re hopping in and out. “What part is this?” Schedule-wise, I’m so prepared for the first week of shooting and then by the fourth week I’m like, “What are we doing?” I’m trying to trackback my weird notes of what an arc is. We very much talk about it and I’ve been more involved than with other projects as a producer. I’ll go in the writer’s room every season a couple of times and talk as the character of Dory. Not “in character,” but to keep the perspective of her arc—my POV, asking questions. I think it’s helpful for them too because there’s so much going on in the world and all of the other characters but Dory is the throughline and the A-plot so I have to keep track of the story and the beats that have to happen in order for me to make this human too.
Do you have input in those meetings in terms of what Dory would say or do? Are you shaping dialogue and narrative as well in those meetings?
To a degree. I’ve never really felt that incongruous with what they put out. I just ask questions to go to a deeper level and sometimes suggest little things, but it’s really more from a character perspective. We talk the arc and track it together. As an actor/writer, I find it really helpful to be involved at that point because then when it’s time for the scenes I’m really aware of the intention behind all of them. I just know where it’s going. Even though the story has shifted, it’s still kind of a mystery show, you know? So they always know the finale and it’s about getting there. So I have to get Dory there in a realistic way. What are the choices she has to make internally to get there?
Is tone fine-tuned in those meetings? You mentioned how the show balances comedy and darker elements, which is one of its strengths. Is that tonal balance found in those meetings or is it more on set or just in the script? Or a combination?
I think it’s a combination. The first season was the most blind we were to it to a degree. We were just following instincts. The pilot was shot like an indie movie. We had no idea if it had a home. And little did we know how far Dory would go. Even crew members are like, “Who knew Dory would be doing this shit?!?!” Tone is such an interesting concept especially when I think about other jobs and shows. Networks, in general, are like, “We love it, but what’s the tone.” It’s such a hard thing to describe and not something you can decide on right away. It’s nuance in the performances. It’s down to even the style and the way things are shot. In the first season, we all were just following instincts somewhat blindly and going with what feels right. And then when we saw the first season and realized it was a success, we were like, “Okay, this is ‘Search Party.’ This is the tone.” And we started trusting ourselves a lot more. And then I think the writers had more freedom to go more extreme. We knew our tentpoles of what works.
You’re now on an HBO show, technically! What has that shift been like or has there been any difference yet? When you shot this though, you thought it was still a TBS show, right?
We didn’t know for sure. While we were shooting it, we were aware of the transition, but we were like, “When is HBO Max going to be a thing?” It felt so far away. I told people then it would be on HBO Max and they were like, “HBO What?” And now it’s like a thing everyone knows, hopefully. We didn’t really know. We just put our heads down and did the work. But I don’t think any of us expected there to be such a long break. Then, at the same time, one of the things the executives said, which is really true, is that people don’t really know. It’s gone for a while and then it comes back and people are like, “Oh yeah, ‘Search Party!’”
I noticed that Season 3 has a similar language to the first two because you can see where the commercial breaks would have been – is that true for four?
No. There’s no commercial breaks. It was very much written for commercial breaks because it’s all about timing, and I was watching parts of Season 3 on HBO Max where there’s no commercials and I noticed the breaks between the scenes. They’re written for breaks but we don’t have that in Season 4 because we knew what it was going to be, so they wrote it all the way through.
Overall ensemble feels key here. Can you speak about finding the right people and how this show did that? Three seasons in and I can’t picture anyone else in those major roles. What’s it like working with this particular group and what they bring?
I mean, they’re the fucking best. I was watching seasons recently with my family and we were like, “God, they’re so good.” When we shot the pilot, Michael Showalter was attached, and he was kind of like the biggest name. I love “Stella” and all his work, so I was really excited, and I loved the script. So they had kind of written it with me in mind, which I was very flattered by. So I had met and gave notes on the character and the show, and they were really open to it. And then they cast the other three leads and we all did a table read together and it was so great. The two Johns [Early & Reynolds] and Meredith [Hagner] were actors that Charles and S-V had been familiar with. They had kind of known each other. I always say, including my part, that if it wasn’t made exactly the way it was that I don’t know if any of us would have been cast in it. If it started at a network, who knows who would have been cast? Because it was made exactly the way Charles and S-V wanted to at Jax Media, who was up and coming, they just wanted who was best for the part. I had some credits and a name, but I don’t think I would have gotten the part if it were attached to a network. Or I would have had to screen test. It would have been a whole thing. We got this perfect cast who are these amazing talents. Charles and S-V have such good taste in casting. They have this really great slew of New York actors like they know, so all the small parts are connected to people that they’ve known for years.
Can you tell us anything about Season 4?
Can I? It gets crazier! I’m very excited. I want to see Season 4.
“Search Party” Season 3 debuts on HBO Max on June 25.